Marsha P. Johnson, born August 24, 1945 and died July 6, 1992. Marsha was also known as Malcolm Michaels Jr., was an American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen. Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Johnson was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the radical activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. Johnson was also a popular figure in New York City’s gay and art scene, modeling for Andy Warhol, and performing onstage with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches. Johnson was known as the “mayor of Christopher Street” due to being a welcoming presence in the streets of Greenwich Village. From 1987 through 1992, Johnson was an AIDS activist with ACT UP.
Johnson initially used the moniker “Black Marsha” but later decided on the drag queen name “Marsha P. Johnson”, getting Johnson from the restaurant Howard Johnson’s on 42nd Street, stating that the P stood for “pay it no mind” and used the phrase sarcastically when questioned about gender, saying “it stands for ‘pay it no mind'”. Johnson said the phrase once to a judge, who was amused by it, leading to Johnson’s release. Johnson variably identified as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (referring to drag queen). According to Susan Stryker, a professor of human gender and sexuality studies at the University of Arizona, Johnson’s gender expression could perhaps most accurately be called gender non-conforming; Johnson never self-identified with the term transgender, but the term was also not in broad use while Johnson was alive.
In an interview with Allen Young, in 1972’s Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, Johnson discussed being a “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionary”, saying, “A drag queen is one that usually goes to a ball, and that’s the only time she gets dressed up. Transvestites live in drag. A transsexual spends most of her life in drag. I never come out of drag to go anywhere. Everywhere I go I get all dressed up. A transvestite is still like a boy, very manly looking, a feminine boy. You wear drag here and there. When you’re a transsexual, you have hormone treatments and you’re on your way to a sex change, and you never come out of female clothes.”
Johnson’s style of drag was not serious (“high drag” or “show drag”) due to being unable to afford to purchase clothing from expensive stores. Johnson received leftover flowers after sleeping under tables used for sorting flowers in the Flower District of Manhattan, and was known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers. Johnson was tall, slender and often dressed in flowing robes and shiny dresses, red plastic high heels and bright wigs, which tended to draw attention. As Edmund White writes in his 1979 Village Voice article, “The Politics of Drag”, Johnson also liked dressing in ways that would display “the interstice between masculine and feminine”. A feature photo of Johnson in this article shows Johnson in a flowing wig and makeup, and a translucent shirt, pants and parka – highlighting the ways that, quoting Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, White says, “she is both masculine and feminine at once.”
There is some existing footage of Johnson doing full, glamorous, “high drag” on stage, but most of Johnson’s performance work was with groups that were more grassroots, comedic, and political. Johnson sang and performed as a member of J. Camicias’ international, NYC-based, drag performance troupe, Hot Peaches, from 1972 through to shows in the 1990s. When The Cockettes, a similar drag troupe from San Francisco, formed an East Coast troupe, The Angels of Light, Johnson was also asked to perform with them. In 1973, Johnson performed the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in the Angels’ production, “The Enchanted Miracle”, about the Comet Kohoutek. In 1975, Johnson was photographed by famed artist Andy Warhol, as part of a “Ladies and Gentlemen” series of Polaroids. In 1990, Johnson performed with The Hot Peaches in London. Johnson also became an AIDS activist and appeared in The Hot Peaches production The Heat in 1990, singing the song “Love” while wearing an ACT UP, “Silence = Death” button.
Johnson was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn, after they began allowing women and drag queens inside; it was previously a bar for only gay men. On the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred. While the first two nights of rioting were the most intense, the clashes with police would result in a series of spontaneous demonstrations and marches through the gay neighborhoods of Greenwich Village for roughly a week afterwards.
Johnson has been named, along with Zazu Nova and Jackie Hormona, by a number of the Stonewall veterans interviewed by David Carter in his book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, as being “three individuals known to have been in the vanguard” of the pushback against the police at the uprising. Johnson denied starting the uprising. In 1987, Johnson recalled arriving at around “2:00 [that morning]”, that “the riots had already started” by that time and that the Stonewall building “was on fire” after police set it on fire. The riots reportedly started at around 1:20 that morning after Stormé DeLarverie fought back against the police officer who attempted to arrest her that night.
Carter writes that Robin Souza had reported that fellow Stonewall veterans and gay activists such as Morty Manford and Marty Robinson had told Souza that on the first night, Johnson “threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar screaming, ‘I got my civil rights'”. Souza told the Gay Activists Alliance shortly afterwards that it “was the shot glass that was heard around the world”. Carter, however, concluded that Robinson had given several different accounts of the night and in none of the accounts was Johnson’s name brought up, possibly in fear that if he publicly credited the uprising to Johnson, then Johnson’s well-known mental state and gender nonconforming, “could have been used effectively by the movement’s opponents”. The alleged “shot glass” incident has also been heavily disputed. Prior to Carter’s book, it was claimed Johnson had “thrown a brick” at a police officer, an account that was never verified. Johnson also confirmed not being present at the Stonewall Inn when the rioting broke out, but instead had heard about it and went to get Sylvia Rivera who was at a park uptown sleeping on a bench to tell her about it. However, many have corroborated that on the second night, Johnson climbed up a lamppost and dropped a bag with a brick in it down on a police car, shattering the windshield.Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Ratanski and Sylvia Rivera in 1973 by Gary LeGault
Following the Stonewall uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front and was active in the GLF Drag Queen Caucus. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, on June 28, 1970, Johnson marched in the first Gay Pride rally, then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day. One of Johnson’s most notable direct actions occurred in August 1970, staging a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at New York University alongside fellow GLF members after administrators canceled a dance when they found out was sponsored by gay organizations. Shortly after that, Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization (initially titled Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries). The two of them became a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions. In 1973, Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in the gay pride parade by the gay and lesbian committee who were administering the event stating they “weren’t gonna allow drag queens” at their marches claiming they were “giving them a bad name”. Their response was to march defiantly ahead of the parade. During a gay rights rally at New York City Hall in the early ’70s, photographed by Diana Davies, a reporter asked Johnson why the group was demonstrating, Johnson shouted into the microphone, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
During another incident around this time Johnson was confronted by police officers for hustling in New York. When the officers attempted to perform an arrest, Johnson hit them with a handbag, which contained two bricks. When asked by the judge for an explanation for hustling, Johnson claimed to be trying to secure enough money for a tombstone for Johnson’s husband. During a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in the United States, the judge asked what “happened to this alleged husband”, Johnson responded, “Pig shot him”. Initially sentenced to 90 days in prison for the assault, Johnson’s lawyer eventually convinced the judge to that Bellevue Hospital would be more suitable.
With Rivera, Johnson established the STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans street kids in 1972, and paid the rent for it with money they made themselves as sex workers. While the House was not focused on performance, Johnson was a “drag mother” of STAR House, in the longstanding tradition of chosen family in the Black and Latino LGBT community. Johnson worked to provide food, clothing, emotional support and a sense of family for the young drag queens, trans women, gender nonconformists and other gay street kids living on the Christopher Street docks or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York.
In the 1980s Johnson continued to play an active part in street activism as a respected organizer and marshal with ACT UP. In 1992, when George Segal’s Stonewall memorial was moved to Christopher Street from Ohio to recognize the gay liberation movement, Johnson commented, “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together.”
Resources on Marsha P. Johnson
Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! by Joy Michael Ellison
“Someday girls like us will be able to wear whatever we want. People will call us by the names we choose. They’ll respect that we are women. The cops will leave us alone and no one will go hungry.”
Sylvia and Marsha are closer than sisters. They are kind and brave and not afraid to speak their truth, even when it makes other people angry.
This illustrated book introduces children to the story of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the two transgender women of colour who helped kickstart the Stonewall Riots and dedicated their lives to fighting for LGBTQ+ equality. It introduces children to issues surrounding gender identity and diversity, accompanied by a reading guide and teaching materials to further the conversation.
What was Stonewall? by Nico Medina
n the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, police arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s doors and yelled, “Police! We’re taking the place!” But the people in this New York City neighborhood bar, members of the LGBTQ community, were tired of being harassed. They rebelled in the streets, turning one moment into a civil rights movement and launching the fight for equality among LGBTQ people in the United States.
We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Matthew Reimer
Through the lenses of protest, power, and pride, We Are Everywhere is an essential and empowering introduction to the history of the fight for queer liberation. Combining exhaustively researched narrative with meticulously curated photographs, the book traces queer activism from its roots in late-nineteenth-century Europe–long before the pivotal Stonewall Riots of 1969–to the gender warriors leading the charge today. Featuring more than 300 images from more than seventy photographers and twenty archives, this inclusive and intersectional book enables us to truly see queer history unlike anything before, with glimpses of activism in the decades preceding and following Stonewall, family life, marches, protests, celebrations, mourning, and Pride. By challenging many of the assumptions that dominate mainstream LGBTQ+ history, We Are Everywhere shows readers how they can–and must–honor the queer past in order to shape our liberated future.